Monday, November 28, 2016

Review of THE AGE OF SHADOWS: Trains, Traitors and Torture

November 27, 2016

For the third time this year, a Korean film gets a commercial release in local cinemas. The first two ("Train to Busan" and "Tunnel") were box office hits in its home country. This third one is a little more special. It is the film South Korea selected to vie for the Oscar Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Usually we need to wait for film festivals to get the chance to see such critically-acclaimed films, but this time we are seeing it on a regular run. Hope this trend continues not only for Korean films, but other foreign language films as well.

It was the 1920s, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. A Korean policeman named Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho) led the enemy drive against his own countrymen resisting Japanese rule. The leader of the resistance, Che-san (Lee Byung-hun) and his comrade Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), whose antique shop was used to smuggle explosives from Shanghai into Seoul, tried reverse psychology to persuade Lee to help their cause instead. 

I went into this film not knowing that it had a historical setting. I was not too familiar with this particular time in Korean history. However, I was aware of the suffering caused by Japanese occupations in the Philippines and other Asian countries, and how local resistance fighters desperately sought to emancipate their country from such oppressive control of the ruthless Japanese forces.

The story was not that easy to get into at first because of the confusing names and faces of the characters, as well as the unfamiliar historical circumstances. But the plot does settle into place after a few scenes and you will be completely drawn into the complex web of intrigues from intersecting interests and loyalties. This is a fascinating tale unlike other Japanese occupation films I had seen before. 

All the newspaper ads promoted was that Gong Yoo, the lead star of "Coffee Prince" 10 years ago and "Train to Busan" this year, is starring in this film. How amazing it is for Gong to star in two huge films in a single year. His acting career was certainly jump-started in a big way, and internationally. His most memorable sequence here was also running around on a train, but he was trying to avoid capture by Japanese police, not zombies this time. Something happened to him at the end which I thought was medically impossible, but let's just call that creative license.

The true lead star here though was the long-respected, multi-awarded Korean actor Song Kang-ho. I have seen him perform in a number of memorable critically-acclaimed films like "Memories of Murder" (2003) and "The Host" (2006) for which he had been named Best Actor, then more recently "The Throne"(2015), also earning him Best Actor citations. Here in "The Age of Shadows" for which he had also been nominated for Best Actor, Song never made it easy for the audience to know what his conflicted character was up to, and that is what made his performance masterful. It is all about subtlety.

Byung-hun Lee is a bonafide Hollywood star now with films like "GI Joe," "Terminator Genisys" and just this year "The Magnificent Seven." In this film, his role as Che-san was small (practically a cameo), but his charisma made it remarkable. Tae-goo Um was over the top as  Hashimoto, the sadistic cop with those criminally prominent cheekbones. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Korea for his floridly hateful performance here. Shingo Tsurumi was quiet but chilling as the Japanese police superior Higashi. 

The last time I heard of writer-director Kim Jee-wun, it was for the multi-awarded horror flick "A Tale of Two Sisters" way back in 2003. His direction of "The Age of Shadows" was confident and assured. The cinematography was slick and glossy, as the period production design and costumes were impressive, though I thought it did go overboard with the graphic gruesome violence of torture (director's horror background resurfacing). This suspenseful historical episode was told clearly and engagingly in its 140 minutes running time, despite its multiple characters, shuttling languages (color-coded subtitles) and varied locations. 9/10.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review of ALLIED: Sentimental Spies

November 24, 2016

We all first heard about this movie when it had the unfortunate association with the biggest breakup news in Hollywood this year -- the divorce of power-couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. One of the reasons being floated was an alleged affair of Pitt with his co-star in the film, French actress Marion Cotillard.  This had shades of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" (2005), incidentally also a film about married spies, where Brad Pitt dumped Jennifer Aniston in favor of his co-star Jolie. Gossip aside, the quality of this film looked outstanding based from the trailers alone. This was THE movie to watch this week. 

It was 1942. Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan got together French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour in Casablanca, Morocco. They pretended to be husband and wife in order to infiltrate a German function to execute a dangerous mission together. The couple fell in love for real, get married in London, and have a child. However, Max was presented with military intel that threatened their blissful union. Defying his orders, Max is determined to fix the problem in his own way.

The first thing that really strikes you with this film is its glossy and lush cinematography by Don Burgess (Oscar winner for "Forrest Gump" 1994). This is clearly reminiscent of big epic romantic films in the past like "The English Patient". The desert scenes were sweeping and breathtaking, as was the love scene in the car during a sandstorm. The production design (by Gary Freeman) and costume designs (by Joanna Johnston) were also of Oscar-worthy quality and elegance. The lead actors both have qualities of Old Hollywood glamour which completes the film's captivating look of cinematic prestige.

Even now in his 50s, Brad Pitt can still do these romantic lead roles very well. The camera loves his visage and he looked impeccable whatever he was wearing, be it just undershirts or a formal tuxedo or a full uniform. He has been in a couple of other World War II films just recently, "Inglorious Basterds" (2009) and "Fury" (2014), so he fit into this role quite smoothly. He was also able to handle creditably the dramatic requirements of the role, that of a desperate husband who had to secretly find a way to save his marriage and still make everything look normal on the surface. 

Marion Cotillard was gorgeous and vibrant as her character was supposed to be. Her depth as an actress was in full display here in a complex role, enhanced by her fashionable outfits and radiant smile. She owned the Morocco scenes with her magnetic outgoing screen presence. It was too bad that her role somewhat got curtailed when the story moved to London, but her Marianne was clearly the driving inspiration behind Max's every action even if we do not see her on screen. 

Director Robert Zemeckis should be credited for the incredible suspense he had created in the last sequences of this film. He took his time, which had us all hanging on to the edges of our seats as he built-up to the emotional and sentimental climax. This sentimentality was what won Zemeckis the Oscar for "Forrest Gump" (1994) after all. He also used the mirror a lot for many of his scenes, probably hinting on the illusions spies have to create in their line of work, hence some imaginative blocking and camera angles were employed.

Overall, I thought this film was engaging on a visual and emotional level. The beauty of the landscape and the actors will transport you to another place and time as only Hollywood can. This extreme glamour may keep you distant but you will be kept interested and hanging on up to it ultimate resolution. Admittedly, the romance part could have been better built up in the first act especially with Max's cold detached personality making chemistry difficult. Definitely though, the wartime intrigue and mystery investigation give the film the spice and excitement it needs later in the game. 8/10. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review of FALLEN: Angelic Archrivals

November 22, 2016

At the beginning of this film, the Fallen are introduced to be a group of angels who did not want to take sides between the rift between God and Lucifer. Following a rebel angel, the Fallen have decided to side with a certain Rebel Angel who embraced the concept of Love instead of Good and Evil. They will remain to be the Fallen until the rebel angel abandons love and takes a side.

After apparently causing a fatal fire in a cabin, Lucinda "Luce" Price was sent  to Sword and Cross Academy, a boarding school for troubled students who could not function in regular schools. When she meets tall and good-looking Daniel Grigori, Luce cannot explain why she seems to know him even if he denies having met her ever before. The school bad boy Cam Briel is also falling for Luce, a match Daniel won't allow. Luce has to make up her mind as the two boys fight over her, revealing their real supernatural selves in the process. 

Ironically for a teen romance, the director chosen was an old veteran, Scott Hicks. In fact, Hicks had been nominated for an Academy Award before for his work on "Shine" (1996), the film that gave Geoffrey Rush his Oscar for Best Actor. For this project, he maximized the foggy and eerie atmosphere of their European castle location to create an ethereal mood of mystery. There isn't really much he could do about the skimpy story he is trying to tell, but he tries his best to sell the slim premise with haunting Gothic imagery.

The main actors were all unknown: Addison Timlin as Luce, Jeremy Irvine as Daniel and Harrison Gilbertson as Cam. They were all beautiful of face, but lacked depth in their acting.They were proficient at least, but none of them really stood out to show any potential as big stars. Supporting actors Lola Kirke (as Penn Lockwood) and Chris Ashby (as Todd Hammond) do so much better because of their naturalness, a welcome contrast from all the pretentious teen angst here. The only known name in the cast, Joely Richardson, lacked subtlety in her portrayal of their Religion teacher Sophia Bliss. 

I think this paranormal love-triangle romance film came out too late, so many years after the "Twilight" saga had already over-saturated the genre. Younger viewers may have a different opinion though, since this is clearly targeted for young adults. I liked how they did the angel wings though, very cool, but the fight scenes in flight were too shot too close-up to see what was going on clearly. The ending was abrupt and very open, so disappointing. This incomplete film was obviously only setting up for a sequel based on the second book in the series by Lauren Kate entitled "Torment", if it gets done at all. It felt more like the pilot episode of a TV series than a feature film. 4/10. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

C1 ORIGINALS 2016: Review of EVERY ROOM IS A PLANET: Amorphous and Atmospheric

November 20, 2016

This is the second competition film I've seen from the currently running Cinema 1 Originals Filmfest.  I catch whatever film is being shown when I can squeeze time to go to the cinema, not exactly the titles I want to catch first or anything. The schedules given to these competition films were very erratic, and mostly at night, so I may not be able to see another one. For this one, I had to line up for more than forty minutes at the severely undermanned Gateway Cinema ticket booth Saturday afternoon to be able to watch.

Yannie was a mentally-unstable girl confined in a mental institution because she thought her husband Alan was abducted by aliens. Elly had sworn to take care of Yannie in Alan's absence, even as he also had a secret romantic longing for her. This seemingly simple plot was expanded into one truly mind-boggling feature film which can challenge your comprehension as well as your patience.

The first feature film by writer-director Malay Javier was the strange X-Files-like alien tale "Hindi Sila Tatanda" (MY REVIEW) which debuted in Cinema 1 Originals two years ago.  For his second Cinema 1 Originals feature film, Javier once again explored a sci-fi theme, which was obvious already in the title. This film actually had binary code sequences all over the screen in many scenes. Supposedly all of these codes actually mean something, so that is cool, though I would really know how to read them.

For each room we see in this movie, there was supposedly a corresponding planet it was supposed to represent. The clue would be in the color grading given each one. Elly's messy condo, where he says he lives "like a pig" had a blue hue, representing Earth. The psychiatrist Dra. Cara's room and love-nest had a reddish hue, which represented Venus. 

The bedroom of Elly's mother supposedly represented Saturn, but I did not notice the rings. Yannie's hospital room was supposed to be the Moon but I did not notice get the satellite reference. If not for that post-screening Q&A session, I would not get all of this interesting detail at all! The additional insight of that filmmaker discussion was vital to further appreciation of this bizarre film.

The aspect which really made this film achieve that out-of-this-world vibe was its background sonic atmosphere. Each room seemed to have its own soundtrack of audible emptiness and freaky feedback. Director Javier revealed that these ambient noises were actually downloaded for free from the NASA website which made available these sound recordings from their outer space probes to various planets! Again, this knowledge did not dawn on me while watching. Knowing this fact was such a geeky bonus.

The quality of the acting was all very low-key and mysterious, in keeping with the weirdness that this project exuded. Rap Fernandez's Elly looked like he was constantly stoned. Valeen Montenegro's Yannie was so fragile, we all want to take care of her. Antoinette Taus' Dr. Cara came on strong and lusty. Quark Henares's Alan looked like he needed the psychiatrist more than his wife. Pinky Amador's Mom looked all zoned out, but is she? All the events happening seemed to be unreal, either the product of a drugged out or disturbed mind.

I cannot say I really liked it, but it was unique and edgy, way out of the usual box. This was the essence of experimental cinema, definitely not for everyone. The audience would have to figure this nebulous abstraction out on their own, no easy answers, no correct answers. Attending the Q&A at the end gave me some revealing inside information about the process behind making a film as strange as this. Probably unfair, but this interesting post-screening session gave the film an additional point in my book. 6/10. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review of FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM: Wildlife of the Wizard World

November 19, 2016

2016 is a revival of sorts for J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter franchise. Just earlier this year, I got the new Harry Potter book, actually the production script of its stage version, for my birthday, which I just finished reading it this week. And now, there is a new film with a title we had first read in the first Harry Potter book "The Sorcerer's Stone". If you recall, one of the required textbooks in the Hogwarts School of Wizardry was entitled "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" written by a certain Newt Scamander.

This new film is about an adventure of the author Newt Scamander before he published his famous book. It was 1926 when Newt arrived in New York carrying his suitcase of magical creatures. One of these creatures escaped and was wreaking havoc in a bank. In his efforts to recover his wayward pet, Newt accidentally switched suitcases with that of Jacob Kowalski, a baker whose loan just got rejected. This led Newt on a big adventure getting his suitcase back as well as the other creatures Kowalski inadvertently released into the city, with the Aurors of the Magical Council of the USA hot in pursuit.

Definitely the titular fantastic beasts in all their computer-generated glory were the main attraction of this film. The first one we saw was the naughty Niffler, a platypus-like creature who loved collecting gems and shiny things and stuffed them into his pouch-like body. There was a giant rhinoceros-like creature called an Erumpent that Newt cornered in snowy and icy Central Park. The CG image was certainly huge, but its appearance was not exactly awe-inspiring. The green lock-picker Bowtruckle and the sloth-like Dougal were cute. The dragon-like Occamy and the eagle-like Thunderbird were the more spectacular creatures.

A significant side story was about Mary Lou Barebone, a lady who used orphan kids to spread her anti-witchcraft advocacy, and her creepy adopted children Creedence and Modesty. I found the extreme darkness of this plot a major downer in the storytelling which I did not really like. The whole business about the Magical Council led by their lady President Seraphina Piquery (Carmen Ejogo) and chief auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) may have had elegant production and costume designs but again, the treatment by director David Yates was too dark for my liking. Another subplot about the rich and powerful Shaw family (led by Jon Voight) did not seem that essential, yet at least. 

For me, the best part of the film was not a wizard or witch, but a No-Maj (that's how a Muggle is called in the US). I enjoyed the way Dan Fogler portrayed Jacob Kowalski. He was funny and charming. His chemistry with sweet mind-reading witch Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) was delightful. Eddie Redmayne's wide-eyed portrayal of kind magizoologist Newt Scamander, was very sincere. Though not bad, it tended to feel one-note after a while. Katherine Waterston was trapped in the dowdy clothes and dour demeanor of her character, the demoted auror Tina Goldstein, for most of the film. Fortunately she was given a few scenes to smile and shine. 

With a script that was the debut of J.K. Rowling as screenwriter, this film was clearly setting up for more adventures for Newt in the future. In fact, word is it will be a trilogy. Aside from the wondrous wildlife, I enjoyed the references to Hogwarts and hearing those spells again, like "Alohomora" and "Accio", among others. The cameo at the end was a big surprise, if you did not know that there will be a guest appearance by a big movie star.

Though I may not have been all too effusive about this first episode, I am still curious to see where the next story will take Newt and his friends. I am hoping though that the next installment would diffuse at least some of the darkness that kept this film from being as engaging as its trailer promised. 7/10.

Friday, November 18, 2016

C1 ORIGINALS 2016: Review of MALINAK YA LABI: Inexplicable Impulses

November 17, 2016

The schedules for the films in competition in the C1 Originals have been spread out too thinly among the five theaters participating in the film fest. I was afraid I would not be able to catch any one of them. Lucky today, I had the free time to catch my first one, a film called "Malinak Ya Labi". Since the title was in a local dialect I did not know, so it gave no clue as what this film was going to be about.

Among the natives of Pangasinan, a ritual of blood sprinkling called "bagat" was done during inaugurations of houses or bridges to ensure a long existence. Usually, the animal sacrifice was a chicken. However, for bridges, it was said that a child may be the ideal sacrifice. It was 2009, and a new bridge was about to be inaugurated in an isolated town of Putot. A body of a young boy was dumped under this new bridge, seemingly a sacrifice in the name of "bagat". There begins this tale of inexplicable violence in a small rural town.

We follow the intersecting lives of some residents in Putot, a town so-named because of the dismembered saints in their St. Michael the Archangel Parish Church. We see the townspeople preparing for their fiesta, cooking up a feast and rehearsing for the big street-dancing parade. The film is in the Pangasinan language. The title translates to "Silent Night" in English. The words come from a popular song known in that part of the country.

There is Carmen (Luz Fernandez), a fussy old woman who collected jueteng bets. Her husband was Teofilo (Dante Balois), nicknamed the cock charmer for his love of fighting cocks. They are the grandparents of a little boy named Emmanuel (Angelo Alfero), an altar boy of Fr. Amadeo (Marlo Artacho) and a student of Ms. Amanda (Angeline Quinto). 

Aside from avoiding the lecherous advances of her school principal Dr. Cacho (Jess Evardone), Amanda had a secret admirer in Domingo (Richard Quan), the husband of quarrelsome Myrna (Althea Vega), the "mermaid" of a travelling carnival. Lt. Salvador Calimlim (Allen Dizon) is a handsome soldier who charmed all the ladies, including the Mayora (Dexter Doria), the bored wife of Mayor Josefino Celestino (Menggie Cobarrubias). 

And then there is Silvano (Raul Tamayo), the salt and bagoong maker, whose wife suffered a debilitating stroke that left her totally bedridden. He was the father of  Carol (Shiela Paragas), Amanda's co-teacher, and Ferdinand "Makoy" (Timothy Castillo), boyfriend of nursing student Elena (Karla Estrada, a young actress, not Daniel Padilla's mother). 

The number of characters I had just enumerated must have overwhelmed you. Most of these characters were there to represent the various colorful people in a typical Filipino small town. Not all of them were in the main plot at all. The carnival did not really matter in the story, nor did the cockfighting, though significant time were spent on those side topics. Domingo, in particular, seemed extraneous since he was not even seen in the concluding montage. Anyhow, the acting of the stellar cast was very natural. They all sounded like native speakers of the tongue-twisting Pangasinan language (I am not sure if they were). 

The whole film was an ambitious attempt to create an intricate web of events surrounding a mysterious series of deaths where the victims had their necks slashed. I liked the way how writer-director Jose Abdel B. Langit told the story in a disjointed way, editing scenes together not in chronological order. This style could be puzzling at first but later you will get the drift as overlapping scenes were recreated from another character's point of view. This nonlinear editing style kept in the director's theme of "dismemberment".

The film was generally satisfying for its presentation of local color and culture. The local folk songs used effectively created a calm rustic atmosphere. The big revelatory moment at the end was done very well in terms of subtlety and suspense. However, you never really get the motivation behind the central mystery, which for me did not make for a satisfying ending. If the director wanted the audience to make their own conclusions, I wish there were clues to help us arrive at a theory. The act of violence seemed simply too random. 7/10.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

C1 ORIGINALS 2016: Review of THE SALESMAN: Succumbing to Stress

November 16, 2016


This year, the Cinema One Originals Film Festival will run from November 14 to 22, 2016 in only five cinemas: Trinoma, Gateway, Glorietta 1, Greenhills Theater Mall and the new Cinematheque Centre Manila. There are seven full length films and three documentary features in competition this year. The rest of the other 40 participating films are previous Festival favorites and current World Cinema picks. Unfortunately, with so many films, such I cannot seem to find an available schedule to watch a film in competition. 

Instead, the first festival film I was able to catch was this Iranian film that premiered in this year's Cannes Film Festival. As proof of its excellence, it won Best Screenplay for director Asghar Farhadi and Best Actor Shahab Hosseini. (If you recall, the Philippines' Jaclyn Jose won the Best Actress for "Ma'Rosa" in the same ceremony.) It also won as Best Film or Audience Choice in a number of other film festivals in various countries.

I knew Asghar Farhadi as the writer and director of the excellent "A Separation" (MY REVIEW) which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for Iran back in 2012, as well as a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, very rare for a foreign language film. "The Salesman" is vying for the same honor this year as Iran's entry to the Oscar race.

School teacher Emad Etesami and his wife Rana were co-starring in a local stage production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" as Willy and Linda Loman. Because the building where they live had been condemned because its instability, they were forced to move to another apartment without much knowledge about its previous tenants. One day, an episode of violence happens inside their home. This brings about profound changes in their daily routine as well as their marriage. Usually mild-mannered Emad unearths a side of him his wife had never seen before.

Like "A Separation", "The Salesman" also explores the relationship between husband and wife under crisis. The writing is very incisive and insightful, with its commentary about family, neighbors, the theater scene and criminal justice in Iran. There is also significant statements about the women of this mysterious country, how they behave and how men treat them. The complex tension of the whodunit aspect of the film gradually built up so well that it kept me on at the edge of my seat until that big suspenseful revelatory moment. 

The acting in this film was very natural, as if these were all real people, so sense of pretension at all. Shahab Hosseini's impressive performance as Emad was largely internal as he struggled to cope with criminal incursion into their home and the extreme trauma this gave his wife. Taraneh Alidoosti was very fragile as Rana. Her expressive face and eyes communicated her painful experience throughout. For his important supporting role, Farid Sajadhosseini was very realistic as the sickly father-in-law-to-be of Emad's prime suspect. 

It would be difficult to watch this film without comparing it with "A Separation" which was film of explosive impact that hits you with the very first viewing, a solid 10/10 in my book. "The Salesman" tended to meander a little in the midsection. There are some scenes of socio-cultural interest, but which have puzzling significance to the plot development. Honestly, I admit that will be needing a second viewing in order to completely grasp the nuances of the lines delivered in those alternating scenes of "Death of a Salesman" being staged and the events to the couple that were unfolding in real life. 8/10. 

Monday, November 14, 2016


November 13, 2016

Like "Phantom of the Opera" four years ago (MY REVIEW), there is also a film showing the live recording of the special 25th Anniversary show of the successful musical "Miss Saigon" performed at Prince Edward Theater at London's West End. It was announced that this would be a very limited engagement which will only be shown in select SM cinemas on only two days -- November 12 and 13, 2016. I just had to have a full schedule on those two days so I thought I would miss it for sure. However, when free time opened up Sunday night, I made up my mind to catch the 8 pm last full show at SM San Lazaro which thankfully was one branches that showed it.

The story (loosely based on Puccini's "Madame Butterfly") is already well-known. Kim was a bar girl working for a sleazy pimp code named "The Engineer" in war-torn Saigon in 1975. On her first day at work, she was swept off her feet by the charming American GI named Chris. The love affair did not last long because the American soldiers suddenly upped and left Saigon. Three years later, Chris finds out that he actually had a child by Kim. However, by then, he was already happily married to Ellen, hence his dilemma. Kim grimly decides she needs to do whatever is necessary so Tam can go to the States with his father.

The whole film ran for a lengthy three hours. The musical play proper was only probably about a little over two hours. However, there was a 5 minute intermission between the first and second act. Then there was another 10 minute break between the play and the special program afterwards. You really had to wait those breaks out, as they did not cut them. The special program lasted about thirty minutes, and was well-worth the wait especially for its nostalgia value since it brought back members of the original 1989 London cast. 

Watching an anniversary show is tricky because you will always remember the original version. The version of the songs you have heard over and over on your CD player over the years would always be the best versions. I admit I had the order of the scenes all jumbled in my head since the last time I saw "Miss Saigon" performed live on stage was that one staged at the CCP Main Theater in 2000. That show had Lea Salonga (as Kim), Leo Valdez (as the Engineer), Will Chase (as Chris), Ron Smith (as John), Lisa Capps (as Ellen), Robert Sena (as Thuy) and Isay Alvarez (as Gigi).

I thoroughly enjoyed that the whole film was subtitled so I can understand all the lines being delivered (especially those by the Engineer and Thuy), and more importantly, I can sing along to the songs as they were being sung! You do not forget you are watching a live play because the mics taped on the actors forehead were clearly visible and the songs were interrupted by audience applause.

There were different lyrics from those that I remember. In "The Movie in My Mind," Gone were the whimsy lyrics: "He takes me to New York and gives me dollar bills. Our children laugh all day, and eat too much ice cream, and life is but a dream." It now becomes a more serious "He takes me to a place where I don't have to dance. Our children laugh all day, but all that I went through won't make my dream come true." 

The lyrics of the song "Please" had evolved into another song entitled "Too Much for One Heart" but with the same pretty melody. Ellen gets to sing a new song venting out her confused thoughts after her confrontation scene with Kim in Act 2, entitled "Maybe", replacing "Her or Me" from the original show".

I remember the stage version of "Miss Saigon" to be a very busy stage most of the time with so many things happening at the simultaneously. Energetic crowd scenes like "The Heat is On in Saigon" or "Fall of Saigon," and the marching dance in "Morning of the Dragon" lose a little something in the film version, yet gain some extra emotional nuance. Watching a play on film is a different experience because it focuses our attention on the central character of the scene only, and not the extra rich details around them. You can see in more detail the emotion of the actors' faces, their tears as they fall down their cheeks, their eyes as they connect with their co-actors. 

The cast in the film was the cast of the West End Revival Cast of 2014. Jon Jon Briones was an electrifying Engineer with all his little quirky mannerisms and facial expressions captured perfectly on screen. Eva Noblezada's Kim practically grew up on that stage with her maturing look and vocal quality, so poignantly yet powerfully portrayed by this new young actress. Rachelle Ann Go's vocals as Gigi was so strong, you'd wish she had more songs to sing aside from "Movie on My Mind". 

Alistair Brammer's portrayal of Chris was earnest and he sang great, though his chemistry with Noblezada's Kim was not instant nor electric. Hugh Maynard was John, with his soulful take on "Bui Doi" song really soaring. Tamsin Carroll was Ellen, a role that was truly difficult to like, and that new song did not make her more likable. Kwang-Ho Hong was Thuy, a character I got to understand more in this film version. The boy who played Tam, though cute, did not look Amerasian and had no facial expression at all, a fact very visible in the closeups of the film version.

The concert part of the show was opened by Lea Salonga who led the cast in singing "This is the Hour". I caught the face of the late Junix Inocian among the singers onstage. Then, she sang "The Movie in My Mind" with Rachelle Ann Go, both singers giving this song some vocal flourishes not heard when sung in the musical. Too bad that the original Gigi Isay Alvarez did not join them in that number. 

Salonga then called her first Chris Simon Bowman to sing "Last Night of the World" with her. They did the scene with all the kissing we saw in the play, which delighted the audience. They were later joined by Noblezada and Brammer mid-song. When they switched partners, Salonga smooched with a visibly surprised Brammer -- which was quite amusing. Bowman was a gentleman with the much younger Noblezada, limiting himself to chaste hugs.

A tuktuk came out onstage and revealed that it contained Jonathan Pryce and he proceeded to perform "American Dream"! Pryce is now pushing 70 so he was not as sprightly as before, but the sleazy vocal nuances of the character were all there, while making fun of his age. He was joined mid-song by the present Engineer Briones, showing the distinction when an Asian plays this character. When the limo came out, it contained the triumvirate of Cameron Mackintosh, Alain Boublil and Claude Michel Schoenberg! After the number, the power trio congratulated themselves as well as the cast and crew of the show over the years. The show ended with champagne and fireworks amid the enthusiastic applause of an appreciative fan audience. 

For most of us, this film would be the only way we can ever watch a performance of "Miss Saigon" and hear all those long-beloved songs sung in their proper context in the story. The production aspects were seamless, with effective direction and editing of images. The quality of the print looked a bit grainy where I watched, but this might be a problem with the cinema production rather than the print itself. This is a must-watch for fans of Lea Salonga, Rachelle Ann Go and the other Filipino artists that this show had catapulted into the limelight, as well as fans of musical theater in general. 9/10.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review of AREA: Hopeful Has-beens

November 13, 2016

"Area" refers to a district in Angeles City where prostitutes who are past their prime continue to ply their trade. They are either old, obese, multigravid -- various states of staleness, willing to accept any cheap or freak customers just to survive. As Area became more and more rundown, only two brothels still existed. The family of Ben (Allen Dizon) who had been in this flesh trade for generations ran one of them.

Hillary (Ai Ai delas Alas) was once a prostitute in posh Fields Avenue, where American G.I.s used to spend their down time. During the panic of the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, she frantically sent her infant son with his father to be brought to safety. She never saw her son again. Her colleagues in Area call her a delusional liar, but Hillary continues to save up all her cash in her trusty locked box to hopefully see her son again.

The unsavory events in Area happened during the Holy Week, when Pampanga is a hub for serious penitential activities. The four generations of Ben's family were shown to be a super-religious happy family, who just so happened to run a prostitution business as a means of living. The dark and squalid Area was shown to be poorly ventilated and hot, so much that you can practically smell its stench.

Ai Ai delas Alas and Allen Dizon have already proven themselves as effective actors in indie films. Delas Alas had no makeup on and was uncharacteristically bold with her skin exposure and bed acrobatics, though nothing really too excessive was shown. Dizon, it seems, actually underwent the flagellation rites in the streets, complete with the initial pricking of the skin in his back to make it bleed. Talk about method acting!

Indie favorite Sue Prado played Julie, whose fine looks and voluptuous body made her the most popular girl in Area, despite having born three kids (with names Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth). Ms. Ai-ai's son Sancho Vito delas Alas actually had good screen presence here as Duman, brother-in-law of Ben, also a pimp.  Bambalito Lacap is the child actor who played Ben's son, another pimp in-training. Because of his gentle features and long hair, I thought he was a girl, until I heard that "her" name was Boy.

Among Ben's family, the standout was Eurocina Pena as the matriarch of Ben's family, his grandmother, boy's great-grandmother. Her acting was very natural and unaffected, just like any regular doting and devout grandmother would act. I really liked her performance a lot. Among the prostitutes, the standout was Tabs Sumulong in her humorous role as Glo, the aging whore no customer was choosing. She was delightful in her desperation, unmindful of the cruel fun poked at her. 

Before it had its commercial run this week, "Area" had already earned an Grade A from the Cinema Evaluation Board. It had also just won the Special Jury Prize in the 12th Eurasia International Film Festival last month in Kazakhstan. This film by director Luisito Lagdameo Ignacio was an intense immersion in an underworld so seedy we would never hope to see it for real. However, the religious counterpoint is not exactly new and the climax and conclusion were predictable from the get-go. 6/10.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Review of BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK: Hailing the Harrowed Hero

November 10, 2016

Ang Lee is one of the foremost A-list film directors working in Hollywood today. His film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) also won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, as two previous films "The Wedding Banquet" (1993) and "Eat Drink Man Woman" (1994) were likewise nominated for that same award. He remains to be the only Asian (actually the only non-white) director who had won the Oscar for Best Director, and he had won this distinction twice. His first one was for "Brokeback Mountain" (2004) and his second was for "Life of Pi" (2012). This film is his first film out since that last Oscar.

The film is set in 2007. 19-year old Billy Lynn was an American soldier who was sent to fight in Iraq. In an encounter caught on camera, Billy came to the rescue of a fallen comrade and fired his pistol at the enemies in front of him. That footage became viral in the press back home and Billy was hailed as a hero, along with his Bravo Company squad-mates. Upon their return to the US, they were taken on a tour around the country, culminating in a football game in Billy's home state of Texas on Thanksgiving Day . However, even with the trappings of celebrity around him, Billy's mind was still stuck back in Iraq. 

For this film, Ang Lee reportedly used a shooting and projection frame rate of 120 frames per second in 3D at 4K HD resolution. This was supposedly at least five times the usual specs used by most A-list cinematographers currently. I only watched in a regular local mall cinema which was not capable of projecting this film at its intended format, but even then, the cinematography of this film was such a immersive winner with its crispness of color and sharp clarity of contrast and depth. 

Aside from the cinematography, the other remarkable technical aspect was the editing which was instrumental in getting us in and out of Billy Lynn's traumatized psyche, as the horrors of the war in Iraq haunted him even as he was amidst joyous celebrations in Texas. The big highlight of this was the climactic halftime show itself when Billy stood transfixed on the stage during a frenetic Destiny's Child production number, as the lights and sounds of the fireworks brought him back to his most traumatic moment in Iraq.

In a reflective and personal film like this, I thought that the choice of an unknown, totally new actor Joe Alwyn in the title role of Billy Lynn was a bold yet effectively prescient casting decision. Alwyn had a very expressive face which was essential because Billy's demons were within him. His tears streamed down his face with so much drama. That scene where the Star Spangled Banner was being sung was so well-shot, still pregnant with emotion despite its familiarity. 

Another outstanding performance in the film was that of Garrett Hedlund as Billy's sergeant David Dime. He had been around for some time starting since his role as Achilles' boyfriend Patroclus in "Troy" (2004) but relegated to forgettable supporting roles since then. In this one however, Hedlund was a strong supporting presence. He had a charming sense of humor despite the stern demeanor of his character. 

Vin Diesel portrayed the inspirational Sgt. "Shroom" Breem, Billy's superior in Iraq. However, his scenes tended to feel too syrupy, but only Diesel can deliver those cheesy lines and still come out unscathed. It was very good to see Steve Martin after what seems to be a long absence from the screen, but the role of millionaire Mr. Oglesby was disappointing for a star like him. Chris Tucker, who played their agent Albert, has really gained a lot of weight since I last saw him and has toned down much from his "Rush Hour" type of comedy. 

It is always tough to describe Kristen Stewart's acting style and comment if she was good or not. In her role as Billy's older sister Kathryn, Stewart played this disturbed character with her typical angst-y style of acting and she does well within her comfort zone. She also had an awkward chemistry with Alwyn which did not ring too true. The other female character of note was the very pretty Mackenzie Leigh in the role of Faison Zoren, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who caught Billy's eye (and frankly, who wouldn't be attracted to her?). 

The message of this film is clear. A soldier's actual experience in war varied vastly from what lay people back home perceive it to be. The public concept of heroism and patriotism can be patronizing and hypocritical. The sincere sentiment remains valid despite some weak and awkward moments in the script. The overall dramatic effect remains sobering and haunting, as many good war films before it. Oscar nominations are certainly forthcoming. 8/10.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Review of TROLLS: Charm, Color and Cheer!

November 7, 2016

I never really liked those odd-looking little dolls with wild colored hair which were very popular way back many years ago. After a long hiatus from the mainstream, here they are again actually headlining their own animated feature film by Dreamworks. When Justin Timberlake took one of his songs on the soundtrack flying straight up to Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 months before the film was released stateside,  I knew I had to watch this even for the music alone.

It had already been twenty years since the singing, dancing and hugging little Trolls have escaped from the Bergens, ugly giant creatures who believed that the only way to feel happy is to eat a Troll. In a celebratory mood, fuchsia-haired Troll princess Poppy cooks up a grand party with loud music and bright lights that lit up the night sky. However, the banished Bergen Chef saw their merriment and crashed their party, taking with her a number of Trolls to feed her King Gristle Jr. Guilty, Poppy enlists the help of the gray, glum and ever paranoid Troll named Branch to help her rescue their friends.

The animation work made the Trolls quite adorable and delightful. The most striking animation special effects were reserved for the Troll hair and all the crazy stunts their hair can do. The textures and the colors of the hair (and everything else, honestly) were all so striking and attractive, especially with those silvery glitter effects.

The script by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger was not exactly original in terms of the story elements, many of which were a hodgepodge from previous kiddie films, like "The Smurfs" or "Frozen". However, the message of selflessness and happiness was told is such a vibrant and energetic manner that never became too cloying or annoying. I think the voices of the characters added a lot of goodwill to the Trolls. 

Anna Kendrick, an actress I do not really like, gave Poppy such a genuinely enthusiastic, peppy yet kind voice. This may well be my most favorite Anna Kendrick performance ever. Justin Timberlake was so good in portraying Branch as a wet-towel in total contrast with Poppy's effusive positivity. When Branch was saying those romantic lines for Bridget to repeat, Timberlake was so heartfelt and charming. Zooey Dechanel gave scullery maid Bridget such a gentle and heart-warming vocal quality, you could not help but empathize with her plight. With Christine Baransky and Russel Brand voicing certain characters, you'd really expect they were up to no good.

However, for me, the aspect that I loved the most about this film is its pop music soundtrack. The chosen songs (mostly from the 1980s) were such happy surprises for me. I could not help but sing along. Kendrick's version of Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence," Dechanel's version of Lionel Richie's "Hello" and Timberlake & Kendrick's duet version of Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" were clearly memorable standouts, so beautifully rendered. You will also hear "Celebration," "I'm Coming Out," "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and "September" somewhere in there to keep things chirpy. 

Of course, the finale is that newest hit "Can't Stop the Feeling" by Justin Timberlake, incredibly his first No. 1 song in 9 years. The other lively and catchy new songs (with cheery titles like "Hair Up" and "Get Back Up Again") were rendered by Timberlake, Kendrick, along with James Corden and Gwen Stefani (who also voiced Trolls named Biggie and DJ Suki respectively). The feel-good vibe of this music is simply foot-stomping fun. 

This is such a rare movie that really made me so overwhelmingly happy while watching it. I was smiling and laughing out loud from the first scene to the last (there is even an extra scene midway through the closing credits). Everything about this animated feature was done so right. It washed over me with such optimism overload and I loved how it felt. 9/10. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review of TUNNEL: Strain of Survival

November 6, 2016

After the hugely successful "Train to Busan" a couple of months ago, now comes another Korean hit film being shown in local cinemas.  I really welcome this development so we can also get to regularly watch good films from our Asian neighbors, not only from Hollywood. 

Car salesman Lee Jung-soo was hurrying home for his daughter's birthday. On his route home, he had to drive through the newly inaugurated Hado Tunnel. While he was still inside. the whole tunnel suddenly just collapses on his car, burying him under a mountain of gravel, earth and other debris. He still gets to call the emergency 119 number to report his accident. He thought they would be able to get him out in a matter of hours. Little did he know that it was going to take a lot more time than that.

This film wasted no time in setting up the situation. The whole crash and emergency phone call all happened within the first 10 MINUTES! After that, we would have the next two hours to wait and see if Lee would survive this whole ordeal or not. That was not exactly a promising prospect but we held on just the same to see what happens to him. 

We do have to suspend reality and accept the incredible superiority of Korean technology in this film. Can the roof of a typical sedan really withstand the weight of a tunnel that caved in on it? Can you really find enough signal to make a decent cellphone call from under all that rock? Can a cellphone battery at about 80% really last for more than 2 weeks before dying out? Can someone really still have energy to dig and crawl through rocks after weeks without any food nor water? Why exactly did he not try these things when he was much stronger? Don't get me started about that cute pug in there with him!

Ha Jung-woo had to carry the film by himself for most of the time, and the results are mixed. It is not exactly his fault though. He does his best with his claustrophobic role, and tried his best to keep us interested even as his ordeal became more and more incredible. He also got to display generosity and magnanimity despite his dire situation, and this made us admire his character more. I was surprised to learn that Ha was also the same actor who played the fraudulent Count in the controversial film "The Handmaiden" also this year. This was a very different look and role that showcases his acting versatility. 

Koreans can really do their melodramas very well and it was evident here as well in the conversations of Lee with his wife Se Hyun. Bae Doona is a Korean actress I first saw in a couple of Bong Joon-ho films "Barking Dogs Never Bite" and "The Host". She also had international exposure already, in films like "Cloud Atlas" and "Jupiter Ascending." Her portrayal of Lee's wife was very poignant, with her pained sad face fully expressing her emotion. Every scene Se Hyun speaking with her husband was a tear-jerking moment. 

The ruthless media and the credit-hungry politicians and their shameless, insensitive way of exploiting Lee's tragic situation received direct barbs from writer-director Kim Seong-hun (previously acclaimed for "A Hard Day" in 2013). An odd sense of humor was also present to diffuse the depressing air of morbidity, mostly from the characters of the rescuers. Veteran character actor Oh Dal-su ("Oldboy", "Miracle in Cell No. 7") played their most tenacious team leader Dae Kyung. This character was remarkable for his persistence, dedication and humility in service, and Oh portrayed these virtues well. 

Watching this, I was prompted to put myself in the person of Lee. Could I have even lasted even a single week entrapped that way? On the other hand, if I was Dae Kyung, would I have persisted in the face of governmental pressure and everyone's hopelessness? However, I personally thought they stretched Lee's ordeal out too long to be entirely engaging all the way. The believability of the survival story (along with the patience of the audience) really got strained with every day that passed that Lee stayed trapped alive under the rubble. 6/10. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Review of THE ACCOUNTANT: Autistic in Action

November 5, 2016

Ordinarily, I would not have spent money to watch a film actually starring two actors I do not particularly like -- Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick. Anyhow, the trailer of their film together about an autistic accountant looked like a promising drama. Upon watching it though, I felt the film transformed into something totally different from what I expected.

Christian Wolff is an autistic mathematical savant, who also grew up under his father's wing learning various military skills. He apparently sidelines as an accountant for criminal organizations. Raymond King of Treasury Department wants him identified and arrested. Meanwhile, as he was auditing discrepancies in the books of a robotics company owned by Lamar Blackburn, Wolff unexpectedly uncovers a complex plot, not only of embezzlement, but also with mercenary violence. 

Even though his physical appearance did not really connect, Ben Affleck was quite good in his quiet scenes with those little nuances which remind us of his character's autism. However, his sharpshooting and martial arts abilities were too mind-blowing and deadly to be realistic, especially for an accountant. It was like he combined his best buddy Matt Damon's most iconic characters Will Hunting and Jason Bourne into one character even more unreal than those two. 

Of course, veteran character actors J.K. Simmons (as King) and John Lithgow (as Blackburn) do well in their respective roles who were essential to the plot. Up and coming actor Jon Bernthal plays a plot-thickening character of unforeseen significance, that of Braxton Wolff, Christian's brother. Anna Kendrick plays yet another awkward character who had zero chemistry with Affleck for their relationship to matter much in the scheme of things.

"The Accountant" has a complicated multi-layered plot with many subplots and characters. Just as all the pieces were falling into place in the third act, it came up with more unlikely surprises. In the final analysis, a lot of supporting characters did not really need to be there to make the story work. What started as a sensitive character study in the beginning climaxed in an all-out violent shoot-em-up action sequence in the end. It was not bad, but a little too overstuffed for my taste. 7/10. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Review of A MONSTER CALLS: Helping to Heal

November 3, 2016

2016 will be remembered as the year when little kids have been meeting monsters in various films. First, there was "The BFG (aka Big Friendly Giant)" in August. "Pete's Dragon" followed in September. By sheer coincidence or not, here comes a third one.

Conor O'Malley is a very lonely boy who finds solace through his artwork. His mother Lizzie is dying of a terminal illness. His father had left them and now lives in another country. His grandmother is very strict and cold to him. His classmates bully him both emotionally and physically. His only friend it seems is a giant tree monster who appears to him at the unholy time of 12:07 am to tell him bizarre stories.

"A Monster Calls" is an elegant and deeply emotional film by Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona. The live action scenes were seamlessly edited with beautiful stop-motion and watercolor animation work. When we first saw the monster come to life with his fiery eyes with the deep voice of Liam Neeson, we were transfixed to his every move and every word. When the Monster's stories about the Prince and the Apothecary came to colorful life, the images were mesmerizing. The cinematography of Conor's nightmare in the field with the church, the graveyard and the old yew tree was remarkable with symbolic camera angles.

Very rarely do child actors get Oscar recognition, but Lewis MacDougall deserves to be cited in his poignant performance as Conor O'Malley. He really goes through the roughest roller coaster of emotions here and brings us all along with him on his ride. Conor has a lot of rage boiling inside him and we all feel it even when its bottled up in young MacDougall's face. His deep-set yet sallow eyes can really communicate volumes of pain. This is only his second film after his debut as a Lost Boy in the forgettable disaster called "Pan" (2015), and his future as an actor looks bright indeed. 

MacDougall holds his own alongside his veteran co-stars who had all been Oscar-nominees in the past. As mentioned, Liam Neeson intoned the intimidating yet oddly comforting voice of the "Monster". Felicity Jones as Conor's sick mother. I wish she had a longer part because every scene of mother and son together was steeped in bittersweet chemistry. Sigourney Weaver had the thankless role as Conor's "terror" grandmother. She had that one scene of profoundly aghast silence where she shone through. 

There were lengthy sequences featuring Toby Kebbell as Conor's estranged father and James Melville as school bad boy Harry. Yes, they made Conor's life more miserable. However, in the final analysis, these complicating side-stories could have actually diluted the more critical central issue of the film between Lizzie and Conor. 

The book upon which this film had been based was written by Patrick Ness published in 2011. Ness also wrote the script of this film. The story of the book developed from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, a British children's book author who had fought her own battle with breast cancer and lost in August 2007. Knowing this background, you can see where the character of the mother was coming from. 

The main essence of this film was about healing, and the lengths we take to achieve healing in all aspects in our lives. Sometimes we get too caught up in our longing for the healing of others, we forget to heal ourselves. In its own artistic sensibility and stylistic manner, this heavy film helps us realize that we need healing as much as others do. 8/10. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Review of OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL: The Prequel Prevails

October 31, 2016

Back in 2014, there was a film entitled "Ouija" inspired by the board "game" for communicating with the spirit world by Hasbro Bros. Despite its box office success, the critics panned it. The trailers for this new Ouija film had been very good, that I knew I had to go watch it. Its local screening just had to be perfectly timed for Halloween, and so my son and I went in the cinema that night in full anticipation to be scared and entertained.

It was 1967 in Los Angeles, a young widow named Alice Zander made a living by telling fortunes and hosting séances that she meant to comfort here grieving clients, even if in reality they were actually only cleverly staged by Alice with the help of her daughters Lina and Doris. Upon Lina's suggestion, Alice buys a Ouija Board as a prop for her business, but only after outfitting its planchette with magnets. However, Alice accidentally arouses a dark and tormented spirit which never left her family alone since then, especially young Doris.

Unlike the petty millennial characters in the first film, this prequel actually had a central family of characters with whom we could empathize. Elizabeth Reaser may have played an imperfect mom Alice with a shady business, we saw that her caring for her kids was sincere. Annalise Basso may look too mature to be high school sophomore Lina, but we still were able to connect with her concern for her distracted mother and transformed younger sister. 

Best of all, Lulu Wilson was just so charming as the little girl possessed by the evil spirit, she was really the best performer up there on screen. We have seen creepy kids in many horror films come and go, but this girl was really riveting here. She had a screen presence like a young Reese Witherspoon. When she was describing how it felt to be strangled to death, the whole audience may have grown goosebumps just listening to her. 

It was great to see Henry Thomas again in a marked role as the school principal and priest Fr. Tom Hogan. Yes, that is little Elliott of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" all grown up at 45 years of age. In any case, his awkward dinner scene with Mrs. Zander (all glammed up in red) in the swanky restaurant just sent all sorts of wrong vibes. 

Since I watched the first film after the prequel second film, I essentially watched the first film as a sequel. Connections between these two films were well-established. It was set in the same old house with the "graveyard" basement. The characters will still be violating the rules of the game, despite the many times these rules were repeatedly enumerated. There were still those same disturbing images of the stretched-out open mouth screams as well as the even more disturbing images of the stitched up mouths. There will again be a hanging scene from the same staircase. 

I did not think the first film was really all that bad, but the second film was so much better and richer in material. However, the story and even the personalities of the three Zander ladies seemed to have shifted between episodes, particularly that of Lina. But then again, she did spend decades in an asylum by the time Lin Shaye (the same creepy lady in the "Insidious" films) played her in the first film. The carefully detailed recreation of Los Angeles in the late 1960s in terms of set and costumes was also remarkable in this prequel.

Despite the typical horror cliches, writer-director Mike Flanagan managed to improve on the idea of the original film, and succeeded to create an engaging and entertaining formula for a horror film that was great to watch with a skittish audience in a movie house. We knew that when a character looked into a mirror long enough, something will appear behind her. We knew that when a character looked through the lens of the planchette (the window to the "other side"), she will see a spooky image. Yet those big startle scenes were so perfectly timed and executed, they still got us shocked to jump out of our seats, and that was such good fun. 8/10.